Vero and I woke up earlier than expected, and headed to the local panaderia in the SUV for a delicious pasteria con carne – a venezuelan speciality, and a cheese pastry with a cup of cafe con leche. It was cloudy, but the mountain air was fresh and it was the perfect tonic to the night on the tiles. Vero then drove to a shopping mall through ranchos, areas of slums. The ramshackle houses were piled up the hillside almost on top of each other, but had some kind of visible infrastructure – paths like snail trails, and roads forming a traffic system. They had shops, and were quite self-sufficient, but very dangerous, as Vero kept reminding me. “People get shot everyday in there”, she warned. Unlike Rio in Brazil, there are no ‘favela tours’ offered in Caracas, so this drive-through was probably the closest I’d get. Full of ‘real’ people, women and children, real life, just like they are in Rio. Of course, poverty breeds crime, and there are probably many more bad seeds in the barrios than in more upmarket areas for sure. There seems to be no quick and easy solution to the problem here. More and more people keep coming to Carcas and moving into the hillside slums, many of them from Colombia. The rich of Caracas seem incredibly paranoid about their fellow citizens.
We went to a shopping mall as Vero needed to do some things at the bank, then we had another coffee and some delicious carpaccio to give us some energy for the rest of the day. Vero wanted to go and visit her Aunt, and somehow arranged it to meet her Aunt’s yellow SUV somewhere back in the barrios we’d driven through earlier. Her Aunt then led the way, snaking through the narrow streets, hazard lights on, which is what they do here when in a ‘caravano’ or convoy. We climbed high up into the hills, and it became quite misty. Vero’s Aunt lives in an exclusive suburb even higher up than Alto Prado, which meant it was lovely and cool. The higher the neighbourhood in Caracas, the further from downtown, the more exclusive it seems. We parked up, and 2 of Vero’s cousins were doing the same. Both of them live and study in the States, a privilege enjoyed by the offspring of the well-heeled, and so both spoke with quite heavy American accents. We headed into the huge house. Vero’s aunt is a lovely person, and just a bit eccentric. She keeps all kinds of pets – cats, dogs, parrots, fish, even monkeys in her extensive gardens, where there is also a swimming pool. A few people were lounging around here, nibbling snacks and having drinks, including a really nice and friendly South African bloke living in London called Colin, who was here with his Venezuelan wife, Vero’s cousin, and their 3 kids. A number of other family members were also present. It was a great little party – Vero and I had some rum and coke, some fried cheese nibbles, and everyone was really friendly and welcoming to me. We left after an hour as we had to visit the hospital.
The hospital visit was because Vero’s uncle Alex had broken his leg the day before, had had surgery that morning, and was now recovering in a private room the hospital. I’d never been to a hospital in Venezuela before. This one was huge, and inside just the same as any hospital I’d ever been to – horrible blue and white walls, and corridors that echo with the footsteps of the visitors, and the coughs of the sick or soon to be departed. I hate hospitals, I feel nauseous in a hospital. We found Alex’s room eventually, and Vero’s mum was there; along with Alex’s wife and Vero’s Grandmother, and Alex himself, sat up in the bed watching television with a glum look on his face that broke into a smile when Vero and I came in. He was doing OK, and would be home in time for xmas. His mum was tired, and was going to be staying in the room that night. “Mucho frio” she said, hugging herself, with a worried look on her face. She was pushing 90, and seemed really strong, an incredible lady. Alex kept looking at me, curious about this strange Englishman in his room. He seemed weak, but determined. He wanted to hold my hand, so I offered my hand and he held it for a while. I felt a wave of emotion hit me, but I managed to suppress a tear. I hate seeing once strong people helpless and weak, even if they are strangers to me. We left with Vero’s mum, who had insisted on staying the night along with Vero’s grandmother, but had been met with stiff counter-resistance by the grandmother, and so she followed us in her car back to Alto Prado instead. The run-in to xmas, then, was turning out more hectic than usual for Vero’s family.
Vero and I headed out again not long later, this time to a lovely steak house, where we had a bottle of the embarrassingly-named but decent enough ‘Cono Sur’ red wine and a fantastic steak, juicy and tender. The televisions in this place were showing live footage of the baseball game between Caracas and Valencia. Baseball is big in Venezuela, and many players have become very successful in the Major League in the US too. I can never understand why it’s so popular. It’s rounders, like you play at school, and very few tactics are involved, yet the players walk around, chew gum, spit, pose and preen like they are superstars just because they can swing a bat hard or throw a ball hard or can catch a ball with the help of an oversized glove. Cricket requires much more skill, but it’s not ‘gung-ho’ enough for the yanks, I suppose.
Vero and I had a good chat at the meal, and it was nice to have some time together to talk for once, although it wasn’t for want of not trying to get someone else on board, this time her cousin and her boyfriend. Such is the way with Venezuelans, I think, and South Americans in general. Friendship and family are of the utmost importance, and the more that are around the merrier. One-to-one nights out were not the done thing, seemingly. Tonight was a rare occasion, then, and we went for a cocktail after dinner to have a good chat. The bar we went to was nice – a loungy bar playing chilled latin beats, with the clientele supping expensive cocktails that worked out at over 100 bolivars each – nearly 15 Singapore dollars. That’s expensive. Really expensive. I was glad that Vero and her dad knew how to play the black market. I’d transferred the S$2700 to Vero’s Dad’s Miami account, which he’d taken in US Dollars and sold on the black market, getting money in bolivars, twice as much as you would arriving as a tourist and transferring the money. So, in effect, I had twice as much money for my money. I looked around me. Everybody in here was Venezuelan. No tourists here. In terms of homogeneity, this place was even more homogenous in a way than Japan. Tourists are few and far between for sure.
We supped up, had a chat about the future and those kind of hot topics, then Vero drove us home, and as usual, I slept in the car – a strange trait I’ve had for many years after drinking alcohol. I’m fine one minute, asleep the next. I think I must have a mild version of narcolepsy. Oh well. A great evening.